Business Development / June 7, 2021
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I miss in-person networking. There, I‘ve said it. Not a lot of people agree – some, I’m sure are thankful that we’re taking a break from these types of activities right now. Others might read such a statement and think that could only be written by an extrovert. Someone who needs to be seen and heard at all times. A person who doesn’t exist unless they’re being looked at. As a self-described introvert, I’m someone who doesn’t need to hear the sound of their own voice all the time. I’m just as content listening to others, watching what other people will do when they talk about their business with people they don’t know.
Despite introvert tendencies, I miss the urge to work a room at a networking event. It’s part professional obligation, these events don’t pay for themselves, part personal desire to get to know people. Connect. After sufficient amounts of coffee or alcohol depending on the time of day, I find a boost of confidence and realize that it all makes sense. Who people in the AEC industry are, what their firms do, and if we can do business together.
But not being able to network in person all of this time has made me miss it. I even miss those moments from networking events which, up until March ’20 were considered routine such as trying to delicately balance a drink and an hors d’oeuvre in a crowded room while carrying on a conversation, or seeing that look on someone’s face which is usually a precursor to their making an inappropriate comment or trying to make an introduction only to realize that I had lost the individual I was supposed to be introducing to someone else in the crowd.
In-person networking is not just a chance to meet people, but also an opportunity to find that person who is allergic to returning phone calls or “doesn’t get” your emails. It’s a chance to see those people who you’d never call but love to talk to face-to-face because they always start a valuable conversation. Or it’s a chance to run into someone with whom you’ve emailed and spoken to on the phone but never met in person.
When I first started going to networking events, I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or who I was supposed to talk to. Hell, I didn’t even know how I was supposed to dress. I started going to events without a jacket and tie before that was an accepted form of business casual. I felt like a high school kid or an intern shadowing their mother or father at work. I found that the early hours specified by breakfast events didn’t always agree with me. I would show up to some hotel ballroom in a daze, still groggy with sleep mainly because I didn’t know how early to wake up. During those mornings when I was supposed to be at a breakfast event, I would rush out of the house in a desperate attempt to be on time. That’s when I realized that I forget things when I rush like business cards, a jacket that matches my pants, my wallet, and my lunch.
But nearly 20 years later, I know that I’ll never be a morning person singing and whistling my way to work. The early hours still don’t agree with me. But the difference is that I’ve learned some tricks. How to spot coffee at a breakfast event before talking to anyone and actually down half a cup, simplify my wardrobe and hide business cards in every conceivable place I might expect to find them so that I am able to produce a card on demand like a clown presenting a bouquet of flowers.
I used to not know what to say to people when I was networking partly because I was intimidated by the idea of talking to people I didn’t know. Now I’m the one initiating the meeting or who knows half the room. And if I’m at a networking event and can’t find one familiar face or name, I have questions standing by. Ready to be tossed out there to someone looking bored, someone else looking to escape a conversation, or to an old me feeling a little overwhelmed in a room full of chatty caffeinated professionals.
Over time, networking events in the AEC industry have changed, less formal. Ties no longer required. In particular, luncheon events have changed. While the food is still fancy and the venues some of the finest our City can offer, the drinking has all but ceased and most attendees head right back to the office or a client meeting when the event concludes. No more boozy lunches and taking the rest of the afternoon to drink, eat and smoke cigarettes at Anthony’s Pier 4.
Connected. We’re more connected now than we were even 10 years ago. Many of us are texting or answering emails during client presentations or breaking away to be alone at a cocktail table to tap out an answer to a client email or text a boss or colleague.
How have we been finding out about new projects without in-person networking events? How have we maintained our professional relationships and discovered what our clients are thinking and feeling? There have been plenty of calls, too many emails and texts, and endless virtual meetings. If nothing else, the virtual meeting does an incredible job of reminding us what we’re missing. In the virtual environment, it is very difficult to pick up on non-verbal cues or detect a change in emphasis or tone. This usually gets lost when conveyed through a laptop. And there’s no waving. You can’t wave at someone in a large virtual meeting like you would in a crowded room. On a virtual meeting with 180 other people, how is the intended recipient of your wave going to know that it is them you are saying hi to? Sure there is the chat function, but I’m afraid I might make a confidential comment to a friend via chat about how someone else in the virtual meeting is having trouble locating the mute button or has their camera set up so that everyone can see right up their nose only to inadvertently share it with all 180 people.
Will we ever be in a room again with 200 people? Maybe yes if we’re all wearing masks. Or maybe yes if that number is reduced to 100. How long will it be until I’m comfortable shaking hands? I like hearing from some people that once they and all of their friends are vaccinated they’ll go out and have fun like they’re blowing off steam after a tough midterm. But that seems far-fetched as well.
One thing I do know is that whatever comes next we will adapt. We will change to survive because that’s what we have to do. It’s what we’ve always done whenever new ways of doing business present themselves. We’ll identify the new opportunity and become experts at it, write papers about it, and give presentations to show how much we know. I know I can’t fear change. I know I can’t cling to the past. But I also know that in the past, the AEC community has proven to be resilient, creative, and opportunistic. Maybe we’ll invent something different, but we’ll find a way because some things matter too much to keep on missing them like this.